Go ahead and wonder what the hell is wrong with me when I make this statement: “I don’t really like animals.” There, I said it. Hit delete or read on. I come by this honestly. My mother doesn’t like animals, either, as she reminded me over and over growing up. Seeing her pet a dog is one of the most unnatural scenes I’ve ever witnessed. It’s like oil and water—doesn’t mix.
By not liking animals, I don’t mean I advocate their abuse and I don’t drive 30 miles out of the way to avoid catching a glimpse of the zoo. I like them, just not in my house. I don’t like paying for their various needs, as I have two children that consume every dollar for their various needs. And I happen to like my children, so if I have X dollars the X goes to them, not to the cat. I want what’s left of X to go to a new pair of shoes for myself.
I wasn’t always like this. Like any other American child, I begged for a dog. Our blended family, I thought, needed a pet to make it complete. I vaguely remembered the responsibility speech as the four of us chanted “pleeeaaaaseee” to our parents. And then Hershey came along. To honor our family’s two last names, we called Hershey (girls’ idea) Boy (Chris’s idea as he was the only boy in the family) SanDob (a mixture of Sander and Dobbins.) We played with him all the time for maybe a weekend or two. And then there was Lucky. I’m not sure how we got either one, but I know we loved them a lot for a very short amount of time before we got distracted by other things. I remember watching them outside our window as they jumped up begging for attention. I wanted to watch Brady Bunch so I’d just turn the other way trying to ignore their sad faces. Left to come up with their own entertainment, they became fairly wild dogs and would jump on us with such force, they’d usually knock us over. They knew where they weren’t wanted and dug under the fence again and again trying to escape their lonely lives, only to be caught and thrown in the pound. I’m surprised my parents kept bailing them out. I think after that we had a bird dog, Lady, but she wasn’t really “our’s” as much as she was for my brother and step-dad for hunting. I can’t remember which combo wound up with puppies – Lady and Lucky or Lady and Hershey – but at one point, we had puppies. Not sure where they went, either. As you can tell, I was very involved in the lives of these creatures. And the last thing I remember is noticing one day that the dogs were no longer in our back yard. They went to that proverbial farm, and that was that. I felt relief that I no longer had to get attacked every time I fed and watered them. I also felt a sense of relief that I didn’t have to feel guilty every time they stared at me, begging to play outside with them while I stayed inside with my Barbies or whatever it was I was interested in at the time.
And then I got the critter fever. My best friend Renee had a hamster. And that hamster was just tons of fun, I thought, except when it peed on me. I had to have one, too. Somehow I convinced my mom to get me one. I already had a parakeet, Pretzel. I suckered my grandparents in that on my seventh birthday. He had an affinity for Michael Jackson music, and I actually took really good care of him. But when he escaped, it was my mom who coaxed him onto a pencil and back into the cage, cursing under her breath the whole time. Back to the hamster…. For some reason, it would only sleep under the water bottle, which dripped and it wasn’t long before (was it Cinammon? Ginger? I don’t remember) started looking sickly. During a weekend away, I let my best friend and fellow hamster fan take care of my hamster for me. Seems Ginger took a turn for the worse one day and they actually took it to a vet. The hamster was diagnosed with pneumonia and died a few days later. My step-dad made a tomb stone for it and we buried it in a shoebox in the alley. I got another one soon after. Renee and I wondered what would happen if we let our hamsters “play” one day. Well, 13 baby hamsters later, we found out. Since I had the girl hamster, I became a grandmother to the babies. My mom wanted them gone—fast. I gave a few away to neighbor friends and sold the rest for $2 apiece at a local pet shop. That’s when I saw a gerbil. Why I wanted a gerbil, I don’t know – rat-looking thing. As most critters do, the gerbil escaped. We never found it. But we could hear it – in our walls. The gerbil, who I named Fonzie, spent his evenings chewing through the inside of our home. Every time mom could hear him, she would give me “the look.” The “I’m so disgusted right now” look. But I ignored her. I wanted Fonzie to come home to his cage and join me and my little critter family of hamsters and parakeets. And one morning while getting ready for school, there he was on my bedroom closet floor. He died about a week later. He joined the other critter in the alley with his own tomb stone.
This brings me to the present. I’ve managed to go the rest of my life without a pet. I haven’t had a dog since I was a child. I’m allergic to cats. I’m over the critter phase. However, there I now have an eight-year-old girl who is a self-admitted “tree hugger.” She is a lover of all things “living,” particularly animals. She reads about them, writes about them, researches them, and pets and loves on them every chance she gets. About two years ago, when she met her Aunt Deborah’s Yorkie-Poo’s, Tiny and Louis, she fell in love with the idea of a small lap dog. That also was the time her parents were divorcing. I felt the perfect band aid for her pain would be to get her a dog like that. So we drove to a breeder, and I plunked down a few hundred bucks for a Yorkie. He was cute for about five minutes. “Pepper” pooped and peed everywhere and at all times. I couldn’t train him. He could jump on the counters, like a cat, and would eat the dinner on the cabinet in a heartbeat. He yapped. All the time. Barked. All the time. Pooped. All the time. He was too little to be an outside dog, and we were gone all day which made him a “laundry room” dog. And he was pissed. Doggie school didn’t work. It was a failed experiment. When I learned we would be living in hotels most of last summer, I knew Pepper had to find a new home. He stayed with my best friend for awhile who loves dogs, and even she couldn’t handle him. He went to a good home, an older lady who has bred Yorkies most of her life. Adios Pepper.
My oldest daughter still cries about Pepper today. What was supposed to help, wound up hurting her worse. Before the dog, we went through various fish and hermit crabs who all eventually met their maker as well, mostly because we didn’t care for them the right way. And now and then, she’ll shed a tear for them too. She still misses “Pishy,” her Beta from when she was a year and a half year old. Yes, in fact I DO have the most sensitive and dramatic child on the planet, thankyouverymuch. But what comes to mind is the funeral I wanted in our alley for the hamsters and gerbils. I cried, too. So I can’t blame the kid. Much, anyway.
So last year, about this time, we’re finally settled into our new home. The talk of a dog to complete this new life comes around again. I think of the potty training, the vet bills, and the fact that we’re never home. I just can’t go through with it again. So she asks for a cat. Yes, I’m allergic but only if I touch them then touch my face. I somehow find myself on Hwy 380 meeting a girl who has one runt kitten left from a litter of “mistakes.” She breeds Siamese cats and mom cat got out one night and messed up the plan. Fine with me. The kitten is cute and doesn’t cause any problems. The care is rather easy and the maintenance is low. So is the cost.
Then the cat turns into a she-devil…pouncing, knocking everything over, shedding…. ACHOOO!!!!!!!!!!!! She claws the kids, claws my furniture….and did I mention she has turned my laundry room into a toilet? She loves to chew up toilet paper and string it through the house…. She pees in the shower…and she likes to chew up pictures for some reason……She knows who loves her – Kate. And she is nice to Kate but that’s it. I want to get her de-clawed but when I think of where to spend $300, it’s not on a cat right now. But we have her. And whenever I talk about finding her a new home, out come the tears.
And this brings us to Layla, the lizard. “Mom can I have a lizard?” I hear this about six months ago, and it continues. Every answer is no. No. No. No. No. Finally I tell her that if she researches lizards and learns about them, then we’ll talk. She basically writes me a college thesis on lizards. She catches one at her dad’s and it gets away. She catches another, and her little sister “accidentally” kills it. She has done everything possible to convince me that she “haaaaaaaas to haaaaaaaaave a lizard.” I ask her why she wants a pet that won’t love her back. “But it will, mom. You just don’t like pets and don’t know when they’re loving you back.” OK. I ask her if she’ll take care of it like she (doesn’t) take care of the cat. Like all kids I get the “I promise.” I don’t believe her, of course. And on it goes.
Finally, I cave. I think….how hard can a lizard be to care for? Find a lizard, throw it in a cage, and toss in some lettuce, right? Wrong! Your basic lizard grows to be really, really big. Big as in gross big. Those are the cheap ones. I don’t want a big lizard in a big cage in my house. Ever. And they’re not “cute” says Kate. But what IS cute is a leopard-spotted lizard for the bargain price of $27. They grow to be about six to 10 inches, which is manageable but they need a 10 gallon tank. Not aesthetically pleasing in my home, I think. Oh, and they also need sand, a place to hide, a heat lamp so your $27 purchase doesn’t die the same day you bring it home, a water dish, and vitamin dusting powder for their food.
The “lizard sales guy” is a lizard expert, I gather. He reveals he owns about a dozen or so himself, including an iguana which he walks daily on a leash. It looks like he takes time out of his day from gaming to work a few hours at the pet store, get his discount on lizard supplies, and goes back home to game some more. I am basically his worst nightmare – suburban mom, grossed out by reptiles who at first glance was probably a cheerleader in high school and chewed gum a lot and said “like” like every other word. Yeah, he hated me. But he bonded with Kate. As rattled off various lizard facts, his face lit up….ahhhh, a kindred spirit. They both spoke reptile. As Kate’s little sister Liv bounced through the aisles, dancing to Miley’s “Party in the USA” I realized that I’m in trouble here. Kate has the critter disease I had at her same age—a fascination with something…ANYTHING….to love and care for. And it came about the same time for her as it did for me…a few years post-divorce and at a time when I realized I’m a little different than other girls in my class. While they talked about boys, clothes, who is friends with who and who isn’t, and getting their ears pierced….. I wanted to dive into a new book, write stories, and still play pretend. So does Kate. I don’t know if it’s a part of our personalities or if it’s a product of divorce…maybe both.
As I totaled the price in my mind of what this lizard experience was going to cost, I felt a little faint. This comes at the same time the kids are needing fall clothes. The timing couldn’t be worse. But we had been to the pet store before to look and research. I didn’t let her get the first time out. I made her think about it until finally she just wore me down. She held up her end of the deal with research and putting in $25 of her own money she had saved for it. I needed to hold up my end of the deal.
Then I ask… “Oh yeah, where is the food for the lizard?” I am looking through various cans and don’t see “Lizard Food” anywhere. That’s because there isn’t “Lizard Food.” But there is, however, live crickets. And that’s what we will feed the lizard, twice a week. In addition to commuting two hours a day, getting kids to school, piano lessons, dance lessons, and everything else, I now have to add a trip to the pet store twice a week for live crickets. In my mind, I said the longest string of cuss words imaginable. The lizard sales guy looked pleased with himself….He had defeated the cheerleader.
He might have kicked me but it was paying the bill for these lizard treasures that truly defeated me. We get home, too late on a school night, and start to set up the lizard’s home. The heat lamp scares me. I’m sure that will be what sets the house on fire. The crickets gross me out. And I can already smell that “smell” that only comes with having a living creature in a small room. And then there’s Layla, the lizard. She’s OK I guess. We don’t really hold or touch her, and most of the time she stays in the $9 shade hut I bought for her. She sure makes Kate happy though, at least for the next few days until she gets bored of the novelty of owning a lizard that her mother takes care of for her.
And then I get a lot of “what the hell were you thinking?” “Your daughter has so manipulated you.” “She plays on your guilt.” “You have got to learn to say no to her.” I can respect and agree with all of this. But if you know Kate, then you just know…she’s a sweet, tender-hearted girl who is in a stage of childhood where she just loves pets and wants to care for them. She doesn’t ask for every toy on the shelf, and she certainly doesn’t get them either. She barely knows what an I-pod is and doesn’t really want one. She’s not that into fashion and doesn’t give me fits about clothes or what’s in style. She’d rather have her nose in a book or work on the book that she is writing. She’s starting to collect more journals than I have. She takes dance lessons but only because I make her. She loves her piano lessons, which thrills me. She might want to get back into theatre someday, but not right now she says. She’s counting the days til summer just so she can see the horse she rode during horse camp. She just doesn’t really ask for much. She made straight A’s the last two years in school, and has never been in trouble at school or even at home, really. She’s a good kid. A good daughter. A good sister. A sweet friend.
What does bother Kate and causes her to act out, although mildly, is the fact that her parents are divorced. She hates it. She wants it all pasted back up the way it’s supposed to be. Unless you’ve been through it yourself, you will never know true self-loathing until you are on your closet floor, holding your sobbing daughter as she begs you to reunite with her father. The absolute heartbreak of wiping her tears as she hears the news that her father is getting married and that there is no chance her parents will ever get back together is something that words can’t describe. Moving your daughter out of the only home she really remembers – the place where she felt safe – into a home where she clings to you at night because she’s too scared to sleep alone….it will make you feel like the worst parent on the planet. Yes, she will come to understand why. Yes, she will come to accept. Yes, she will heal. And yes, she will be stronger for all of it. But today, at age 8, she is heartbroken. She is sad. She misses life as she knew it, and I don’t blame her one little bit. The one thing we give children as parents, or at least try to give them, is stability. And I was selfish enough to rip it right out from under her.
So Kate wants a lizard? OK. After all that, it seems like the absolute least I can do, even to see a smile on her face for awhile. If it, even for a few moments, erases the memories like those that occurred on the closet floor, I’ll keep feeding it live crickets and spraying her room down with Febreeze. In the grand scheme of things, it’s just a lizard. But she’s more than just a kid. She’s my daughter. And if she continues falling into my footsteps, it won’t be too long before she’ll stop liking animals so much too. And then I’ll be stuck caring for a forgotten crazy cat, creepy lizard, and whatever else she talks me into. To be continued, I’m sure….